An American Dilemma

In 1944 the Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal published a monumental study on the social conditions of African Americans. Encyclopedic in its effort to cover all aspects of black life, An American Dilemma was a volume of over 1,000 pages that included analyses of major demographic, political, economic, and cultural forces that shaped the black experience in the United States. Furthermore, it provided extended discussions of social inequality and social stratification and the persistent role of prejudice and discrimination. It examined the institutional structure of the black community, including an analysis of patterns of leadership and prospects for collective action aimed at redressing a long legacy of racial hostility and oppression. After presenting a vast body of data regarding the past and present circumstances of blacks, Myrdal provided tempered, but nonetheless generally optimistic, conclusions about the future.

The study was commissioned by the Carnegie Corporation, a philanthropic organization established by the estate of the industrialist Andrew Carnegie, which wanted to derive from the study its implications for the formulation of social policy. Although it was not entirely clear why the corporation hired a foreigner who had conducted no prior research on race relations in the United States or elsewhere, a primary reason appears to have been the desire to obtain a novel, outsider’s perspective on the topic. Myrdal had substantial monetary support, ample office space in New York City’s Chrysler Building, and the participation of many prominent American scholars, including several black activists and intellectuals.

The  overarching thesis advanced in the study was noteworthy in several ways. Despite the range and complexity of the topics treated, Myrdal’s conclusions about the future of race relations derived from a remarkably simple claim: the dilemma produced by the conflict between the American ideals of freedom and equality and the reality of black oppression would be resolved in favor of the realization of American values. Myrdal was an assimilationist who based his assessment of the future of race relations on the assumption that the nation had a unified culture with commonly shared core values. He referred to this as the American Creed, which involved generalized values rooted in the Christian tradition and the national ethos. A dilemma existed in the United States insofar as the American Creed was not

realized in the everyday lived experience of white Americans, which involved complex pat terns of behavior and thought that led to the perpetuation of prejudice, discrimination, and racial subordination. The race problem was located in the white mind, which, as long as it harbored prejudicial attitudes that were translated into discriminatory actions, would ensure that the dilemma persisted. Thus, the solution to the race problem would occur when whites rooted out their own racism and treated blacks in a manner congruent with the core cultural values.

But Myrdal did not think that consciousness raising was all that was needed to cure the nation of white racism. On the contrary, he understood that the historical legacy of racial oppression had to be remedied. He called for the federal government to play a critical role in promoting policies intended to improve  the  social conditions  of  African Americans. A dedicated democratic socialist, he had played a pivotal role in the creation of Sweden’s welfare state. He was an unapologetic proponent of social engineering. This position had not been a particularly prominent feature of American social science, but it was congruent with the expanded role of the state being advanced by advocates of the New Deal. It contrasted with the laissez faire views that Myrdal  associated not  only with  William Graham Sumner, but also with virtually all important scholars of race relations, including Robert E. Park, W. I. Thomas, and W. Lloyd Warner. He thought that these scholars shared Sumner’s contention that the mores cannot be legislated – or in other words, that laws do not change the way people think and feel. Such a position led to governmental acquiescence regarding the existing state of race relations. Myrdal’s position starkly refuted this claim. In his opinion, government could and should involve itself in improving the living conditions and life chances of blacks, through expanded educational opportunities, job training, and the like. In the process, it could play a salutary role in changing white attitudes and behaviors such that they ended up being congruent with the American Creed.

Myrdal called for racial integration. He abandoned Booker T.  Washington’s approach, which had opted for promoting black socio economic development within the confines of a racial caste society. Prior to Myrdal commencing his research, Roy Wilkins of the NAACP expressed concern that Myrdal might promote a renewed commitment to the Washingtonian position of development within the framework of a segregated world. Instead, Myrdal endorsed the quest most closely associated with the views of W. E. B. Du Bois for the dual objectives of advancement and integration.

Myrdal placed relatively little emphasis on black activism as a means for challenging their subordinate place in American society. For critics such as Ralph Ellison, this was part of a larger problem with the work, which was that it significantly downplayed the role of blacks as sociohistorical agents shaping their own lives and that of the society they inhabited. When Myrdal discussed the presence of protest organizations within the black community, especially the NAACP and the Urban League, he stressed the importance of their interracial character. He was sympathetic to such organizations and suggested that more organizations with somewhat different political orientations would be welcomed. Nonetheless, his general view was that due to their lack of power and experience, such organizations would necessarily play an essentially secondary role in the move to redefine the roles that blacks would play in the future. He did not appear to anticipate the profound significance of the Civil Rights Movement, which began to have a major impact on the existing racial formation within a decade of the publication of An American Dilemma. Despite this shortcoming, the book stands as a landmark of sociological analysis and a clarion call for government intervention on behalf of racial equality and harmony.


  1. Ellison, (1964) Shadow and Act. Random House, New York.
  2. Lyman, M. (1972) The Black American in Socio logical Thought. Capricorn, New York.
  3. Lyman, M. (1998) Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma After a Half Century: Critics and Anticritics. International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society 12(2): 327 89.
  4. Myrdal, G. (1944) An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy. Harper & Brothers, New
  5. Smith, V. & Killian, L. M. (1990) Sociological Foundations of the Civil Rights Movement. In: Gans, H. (Ed.), Sociology in America. Sage, New-bury Park, CA, pp. 105 16.
  6. Southern, W. (1987) Gunnar Myrdal and Black White Relations: The Use and Abuse of An American Dilemma, 1944 1969. Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge.
  7. Wacker, F. (1983) Ethnicity, Pluralism, and Race: Race Relations Theory in America Before Myrdal. Greenwood Press, Westport, CT.

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